Wildness and Wilderness: A Few Quotes from David Oates

The Economist piece here begins a series of posts on the topic of “what pieces of what we do are based on a pre-climate change/non-dynamic worldview, and what must we do to develop new approaches with climate change in mind?”

The comment from Les Joslin here pointing out that Thoreau’s quote was about wildness, not wilderness, reminded me of David Oates’ book Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature. Now, all who follow this blog know that I am not a wallower in deep thinking. I tend to be more interested in facts and actions than ideas. But I recognize that ideas (and words) are important, because they form a fundamental framing of the universe. If we are unaware of that framing we can talk past each other and never, ultimately, understand each other. And those misunderstandings can lead to attribution of bad intent, and rifts among us when, instead, there could be powerful surges of joint action for ourselves and the Earth.

Here are a couple of quotes from the book that seem relevant to our current discussion. You can find more excerpts, as well as his other work, on Oates’ website here.

Eden is a myth that has ended up telling its tellers, speaking through them without their ability to see it or to imagine any other words, or worlds. But we cannot afford to let this storyline use us any more. It is time to bring it into consciousness, recognize it as a historical artifact, and move to other ground. For the immediate political gains we make in using the Eden-and-Apocalypse language are paid for with long-term defeat. Like Muir, we find we cannot live in Eden, and that however “saved” it is, it is somewhere else. We trudge in a flat and dusty world, separated and alienated (as all the nature writers declare) from a vital connection with the world. Eden can’t be saved unless we are, too. Our fates are intertwined. We must re-imagine what Eden means.

“But they have too often veered into the dead-end language of Paradise Lost. When the rhetoric of Lost Eden shows up,as it does in classics like Muir and Abbey and lots of recent environmental writing and politicking, it pretty much squelches the possibility for grounded choices, for practical spirituality. For knowing when to keep the tree and when to make it into something else. That’s the real work (in Gary Snyder’s phrase):smutting along in the world. Glorying along in it, growing roses from our dungheaps and dungheaps from our roses. This work takes passion, energy, humility and perhaps humor. Willingness to try, to get soiled; to compromise, learn, improve. (note from Sharon: sounds like collaborative adaptive management?)

But these traits we cannot find when we are loaded down with post-Edenic guilt and pessimism. These leave us in a state of environmental denial, too exhausted from crisis-overload to pay attention; or whipped up into Puritan absolutism, searching for purity in the form of fantasy wildernesses and defeatist politics. “Apathy and dogmatism” in the words of James D. Proctor’s searching analysis of the forest debate. Neither response works very well in the world we actually live in, which generally isn’t about purity but is ready to reward attentiveness bountifully.”

Note I think Oates may be referring to this book edited by Proctor.

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